Mistaken allegations of child abuse lead to murder-suicide before baby’s rare genetic disorder found
posted by: Mile High Mamas
Jackie Cuin stood outside her daughter’s house, too frightened to walk through the door.
All day long, Tiffany had not called or returned a call. That wasn’t like Tiffany.
This was an important day. Tiffany and her husband, Dave O’Shell, were supposed to meet with lawyers and a criminal investigator about the alleged abuse of their baby girl, Alyssa. Yet, late in the afternoon, their cars were parked in the garage. And their dog, Pandora, sat unattended on the front porch.
Jackie tried calling her daughter one more time. Still no answer.
“I knew right then that something had happened,” she said. “I didn’t go in.”
Two weeks before, on June 17, 2008, Adams County child protection workers had taken Alyssa and handed her to a foster mother. They did so after a hospital found 11 broken bones in Alyssa’s 3-month-old legs, but no bruises or other signs of abuse.
Dave and Tiffany had been allowed to see their daughter just once in those two weeks. Tiffany’s lawyer was advising her to divorce her husband if she ever wanted her baby back. Clouds of suspicion swirled around Dave. Police were about to arrest him, he thought, for felony child abuse. He had grown more despondent day by day.
Nobody seemed to hear the family’s pleas that there must be some other explanation for all those broken bones.
Jackie drove home, found her husband, Paul, and returned to Tiffany and Dave’s house. Paul opened the door and went inside, calling their names. Jackie pulled out her cellphone.
“I had already dialed 911,” she said, “when I heard him scream.”
Upstairs, Paul saw Dave’s legs sticking out the bedroom doorway. Tiffany lay in bed, covered to her neck by a white comforter, a pool of blood surrounding her head.
Sometime the previous night, Dave had gone downstairs and returned with two handguns. He put one to the right side of his sleeping wife’s face and shot her twice. Then he stuck both guns in his mouth and pulled the triggers.
That very day, 15 miles away, a doctor at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora detected an illness in Alyssa that others at the same hospital had not. Something in her muscles: She was 3 months old and could not lift her head. Her tiny hands turned inward.
Dr. Joyce Oleszek ordered genetic testing.
A week later, the results came back. Alyssa had spinal muscular atrophy, a debilitating genetic disease in a young child, lethal in a newborn.
She would never develop the muscles needed to sit or hold her head up, let alone stand. As her body grew, she would need supplemental oxygen in order to breathe, a feeding tube to eat. Her bones could break easily.
Her mother and father were dead, suspected to the end of repeatedly breaking her legs. Her own life would end in months.
Three and a half years later, Paul and Jackie Cuin shared their account of a family tragedy, hoping to broaden knowledge about a genetic killer of infants and to spare someone else from mistaken accusations of child abuse. They also want Colorado to give accused parents better ways to appeal if a child protection agency balks at performing tests that could disprove abuse. To tell the story, The Denver Post obtained medical, social services and police investigative records produced during the Cuins’ lawsuit and used a detailed timeline Paul Cuin compiled after Alyssa died.
On the 50-inch television screen in the living room of their Henderson home, Paul Cuin played a short video, a family album set to the John Denver song “You Fill Up My Senses.”
There’s Alyssa, a beautiful baby with green eyes, a mop of red hair and a great smile. Alyssa, lying in bed on her father’s bare arm. Alyssa, held by her proud parents on the staircase. Alyssa, still smiling with oxygen tubes in her nose, the day of her feeding-tube surgery.
Cuin recalled his final conversation with his daughter.
“The last thing she said to me was, ‘Please help me save my husband and my family.’ And I said, ‘We’re doing everything we can.’ ”
Tears fill his eyes. His voice falters.
“Nobody would listen.”
Agencies under fire
When an abused child dies, child protection workers often take the heat. Why didn’t they take those bruises more seriously? Couldn’t they see the kid was starving? They left the girl with her mom and dad after Grandma’s eighth abuse report?
In Colorado, the list of children who died despite calls to child protection agencies keeps growing. Chandler Grafner starved to death in a Denver closet after a worried teacher’s aide called a child protection agency to save him. Caleb Pacheco’s body was found under a Sterling mobile home after, an aunt said, she called authorities 70 times about the missing boy. Gabriel Trujillo, emaciated and covered with bruises and cigarette burns, died of a head injury weeks after an aunt told Adams County investigators that his grandmother was abusing him.
Gov. John Hickenlooper and his human services director have responded with reforms intended to save the next little Gabriel from agency inattention.
Paul Cuin sees these reforms as a double-edged sword. While all eyes are now focused on cases in which social services agencies failed to save children in danger, there are others “where the departments become overzealous,” he said, with tragic results.
He said he thought child protection agencies tried to reunite families whenever possible. But “they didn’t in this case. They literally tore the family apart,” he said. “And you have no recourse. You have to prove you’re innocent to get your child back.”
By law, child protection agencies cannot divulge details of their cases. “Children’s Hospital Colorado cannot comment on individual child-abuse cases, past or present,” spokeswoman Elizabeth Whitehead said.
Darwin Cox, the child and family services director in Adams County, also said he could not discuss details. But he noted that Alyssa was referred from a hospital renowned for its child-abuse expertise.
Hospital records show that its specialists believed Alyssa had been horribly abused and the family was in denial.
“This was a terrible, terrible tragedy,” Cox said. But “we did the job we could with the best information we had at the time.”
A love for children
Tiffany was a red-haired tomboy. She ran cross-country, played soccer, rode a motorcycle, became a starting point guard on her high school basketball team, coached basketball — a boys team — at an Adams County middle school.
“Guys loved having Tiffany around. She was one of them,” her mother said. “I don’t think I had a dress on her past age 2.”
Tiffany loved kids. She went to the University of Northern Colorado, planning to help children in special-education programs develop physical skills.
To lower her college costs she joined the Army Reserve, where she grew interested in law enforcement and changed career plans. To her mother’s shock, she announced one day that she had decided to become a police officer.
She graduated and found a job with the Lakewood Police Department, where she met William David O’Shell — Dave.
Dave was a bright, ambitious police officer who also served in the National Guard and worked on a doctoral degree in philosophy in his spare time.
“They got married, had the baby. Everything was going great for them,” Paul Cuin said. “Until all this happened.”
Tiffany had left the Lakewood police force during her pregnancy, then returned to work as a halfway-house guard after Alyssa was born. On the morning of June 16, 2008, as she was changing Alyssa’s diaper, she noticed her baby cried when she lifted her right leg. But then Alyssa went to sleep in her swing, so it didn’t seem that serious.
Tiffany dropped off Alyssa at her mother’s house, where her younger brother, Mykal, watched the baby until Jackie came home from work.
Jackie also found Alyssa unusually fussy that day. She cried whenever her right leg was moved. When Dave came home from work, Jackie dropped off Alyssa and told him. Seeing no swelling, he decided just to watch Alyssa closely that evening. He fed her, and she went to sleep.
By morning Alyssa’s leg had swollen. Tiffany called her pediatrician immediately. X-rays showed something, possibly a fracture, possibly a cyst. The pediatrician’s office sent Tiffany and Alyssa to Children’s Hospital for more tests. Dave joined them there.
Children’s X-rayed Alyssa’s entire body — and found 11 fractures in various stages of healing in her legs. The hospital called the Adams County Human Services Department.
Because Jackie and Mykal had cared for Alyssa while her mother worked, the entire family became child-abuse suspects. Child protection workers took Alyssa, called a foster mother and opened an investigation.
From that day forward, Alyssa’s parents and grandparents insisted that there had to be some explanation other than child abuse.
“There was no way. They loved that baby,” Paul Cuin said.
He and his wife turned to the Internet, researching possible medical explanations. They suggested brittle bone disease, a genetic illness. The child-abuse team doubted that. Alyssa had corner fractures, a type associated with violently yanking or twisting her limbs.
A hospital report called her injuries “highly suggestive of nonaccidental trauma,” adding that nothing in Alyssa’s medical history or physical exam pointed to a different cause.
Still, on June 19, two days after Alyssa was taken from her parents, an Adams County judge agreed that other possible causes had to be explored. The judge ordered “emergency medical testing” of Alyssa for genetic illnesses.
There were people who questioned the instant diagnosis of child abuse.
Dr. Callie Black, Alyssa’s pediatrician, was one. She told Tiffany and Dave that she wanted a bone specialist to look at Alyssa for “weak bones.”
Alisa Thomas, a social worker at the hospital, noted the absence of external injuries and also suggested extensive medical testing of Alyssa.
Adams County child-abuse investigators, meanwhile, interpreted emergency testing to mean sometime in the next few months, according to the Cuins. Jackie said a social worker told her that a genetic test had been scheduled for Oct. 4 — more than three months away.
Tiffany and Dave were allowed to see their daughter once, for one hour, at Adams County social services. They were told the next visit would have to occur before a therapist, Jackie Cuin said, because Alyssa had looked away from them several times.
Jackie was incredulous. “She looked away. A 3-month-old looked away,” she said.
Dave O’Shell quickly became the main suspect in a Commerce City police investigation because he had held Alyssa by the legs.
“The only thing that he’s done that I tell him not to do is hold her upside down. She is way too little for that,” Tiffany told an investigator.
But “I know he would never hurt her intentionally. He loves her to death.”
Dave described picking up Alyssa by her legs to kiss her belly — and wondered aloud if that could have hurt her.
“Did I hold her too strongly whenever I was holding her by the legs? That’s the only thing I can think of,” he said. “I’d give her a kiss and put her back down.”
“Did she cry when you put her back down?” the investigator asked.
“No, she liked it. She gave a little smile,” he said.
Yet as the investigation focused on him, Dave grew desperate.
June 26: Dave visited Charles Cooper, Tiffany’s grandfather. Over a basement game of pool, he talked about going to prison.
“I just cannot stand anyone else with Tiffany,” he said.
Dave had heard he was about to be arrested on felony charges — and become a police officer behind bars. He would be fired in Lakewood, discharged from the military, lose his house, his wife, everything.
He would need a criminal defense lawyer and about $50,000 for bail.
Tiffany, who had her own lawyer, confided to a friend that her lawyer recommended filing for divorce if she wanted her baby back. Given a choice, her friend told her, always choose your child.
June 28: Tiffany told her mother that Dave said he was “going to shoot people” so police would have a real reason to arrest him. Tiffany was getting desperate, too. She talked wildly of going to jail herself, living in her grandpa’s basement on welfare, Alyssa growing up without a father.
At the same time, she said, “she had to be the strong one” for Dave. He was saying scary things.
June 30: Tiffany and Dave had an 8 a.m. appointment at the hospital on their child-abuse case. Then Dave had an 11 a.m. appointment with his lawyer, who would take him to be questioned by the case detective. Tiffany had a 1 p.m. appointment with her lawyer.
Tiffany had agreed to call her mother throughout the day to let her know what was happening.
She didn’t call.
At 3 p.m., Jackie tried calling her daughter. No answer.
Two more hours passed. Jackie decided to drive over to Tiffany and Dave’s house, about a mile away. That’s when she found the dog on the porch and the cars in the garage.
Inside, Tiffany and Dave had been dead all day.
Foster mother’s concerns
Also on June 30, Alyssa’s foster mother brought her back to Children’s. She told the doctor that she was concerned about the baby’s lack of development. Alyssa also had a rapid breathing pattern that sometimes sounded raspy.
Dr. Oleszek noted that Alyssa “makes sounds, smiles and laughs,” but “does not grasp objects well. She does not have significant movement of her limbs and has no head control. She also tends to keep her thumbs in her palms.”
Normal intelligence, but a failure of muscles to develop — this pointed to a potentially devastating genetic illness.
“Most concerning today,” Oleszek wrote, “is the diagnosis of spinal muscular atrophy.” She independently ordered the genetic tests that a judge had ordered 11 days earlier.
There had been other clues.
Dr. Black, the pediatrician, worried when Alyssa was 2 months old about her weak muscles, and she talked with Dave and Tiffany about possible physical therapy.
When the hospital first questioned Dave and Tiffany, they told a social worker that they had recently sought physical therapy for Alyssa. She was “smiling and making noises,” they explained, but “not rolling and not holding her head up” — and wanting to turn her head to only one side.
At the hospital, another doctor had noted that Alyssa “really has very little head control” and keeps “her thumbs in her hands.”
On July 9, test results confirmed the disease.
Spinal muscular atrophy afflicts about one of 10,000 children. But if the symptoms appear after a child’s first birthday, the consequences are less severe — poor muscle tone, weak legs and arms, a risk of broken bones and living in a wheelchair.
If the disease appears prenatally or in a newborn baby, it’s a death sentence.
On July 11, an Adams County caseworker called Paul and Jackie Cuin’s lawyer to inform them of the diagnosis. But since Tiffany O’Shell “was being buried on 7/11/08,” the caseworker noted, she and the lawyer agreed “it would be best to wait and inform the relatives over the weekend.”
None of this altered the child-abuse team’s opinion that Alyssa should remain a foster child.
“This diagnosis does not rule out the physical abuse that Alyssa suffered,” the caseworker wrote, because the types of fractures in her legs “are usually obtained when someone yanks or twists the limbs forcefully.”
Jackie Cuin said the agency also declined to bring Alyssa to her mother’s funeral.
On July 15, Adams County social services recommended keeping Alyssa in foster care and letting her grandparents visit her at some “appropriate place, given Alyssa’s issue around the susceptibility of getting a cold/germs.”
Back with grandparents
On July 16, Jackie and Paul Cuin went to court for another hearing in the child-abuse case. They offered to take care of Alyssa for the rest of her life. Adams County social services asked the judge to leave Alyssa in its care.
Judge Katherine Delgado asked whether Jackie Cuin had been cleared as a child-abuse suspect.
Then why was the agency still involved?
The caseworkers “offered no substantial reasons,” Paul Cuin said, and “the judge immediately ordered Alyssa turned over to us and granted temporary custody. Thank God for Judge Delgado.”
The Cuins kept their jobs, with revised schedules. Jackie worked days at a horse association. Paul, a supermarket manager, switched to a night shift.
They put one crib upstairs and one crib downstairs, so that a baby who would never sit up by herself always had a place to play.
Each morning, her grandfather changed her diaper, dressed her, fed her, then gave her a little physical therapy on the couch. “Run run run run, jump,” he said as he exercised her legs.
Then he would put her in her swing, “and I’d catch a quick nap.”
Gifts arrived from other families whose children had spinal muscular atrophy. Lightweight things that a baby with weak arm muscles could gaze at and maybe bat — feathers, balloons, chimes, mobiles, bath toys. Alyssa liked baths. She was almost weightless there.
Police officer William David O’Shell’s doctoral dissertation, on the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, also came in the mail one day.
In September, the Cuins received an opinion from a specialist that the broken bones in Alyssa’s legs were attributable to her illness.
A lawyer and family friend had called a national spinal muscular atrophy association to ask for doctors familiar with the disease. The association provided several, and one in Utah, Dr. Gary Chan, offered to look at Alyssa’s X-rays.
“I have spent 3 hours reviewing the xrays and the reports. The fractures are consistent with subjects with SMA,” he responded in a Sept. 19 e-mail. “I would guess some of these fractures may occur at time of delivery, but most occurred after birth from normal handling. It does not surprise me that Alyssa had fractures noted at 3 months of age.”
As Alyssa grew and her muscles didn’t, breathing and eating grew harder. When she could no longer eat enough on her own, the Cuins took her to a hospital to put a feeding tube in her tummy.
They also needed to suction her nose and used an electric pump to pull mucus from her throat. By October, they were suctioning her six times a day.
Through it all, Alyssa never lost her smile. “She was happy,” Jackie said. “That was our biggest joy.”
Jackie bought Alyssa a Christmas present, a singing, dancing Elmo. Then, fearing Alyssa might not live that long, Jackie gave it to her early.
And “she just loved that thing,” Paul said. “She would try to reach for him. Or just watch him and smile.”
On an autumn morning, the day after a hospice nurse told Paul and Jackie that she thought Alyssa would make it to Christmas, Alyssa’s skin turned blue.
“She died upstairs in my arms,” Paul said.
In The Denver Post, a brief obituary appeared: “Alyssa, 7 months old, rejoined her parents on Oct. 28, 2008.”
The Cuins say they never heard a word of apology, or regret, or even an acknowledgment of a mistake, from the people who put Alyssa in foster care and investigated their daughter and son-in-law as child abusers.
With one exception: On the day Alyssa died, the Commerce City case detective, Daniel McCoy, arrived at the Cuins’ home before Jackie did.
“Detective McCoy was awesome,” she said. “He heard the address come across on the radio, and he was one of the first people in the house.”
The Cuins sued, seeking some admission that the child protection team had played a role in their family tragedy, but they lost without reaching a jury. The hospital argued successfully that a murder-suicide was not a foreseeable consequence of a child-abuse investigation. Adams County social services also countered that government agencies are immune unless their behavior is willfully and wantonly wrong.
Today, Paul Cuin still struggles to forgive Dave. “He was a wonderful man. I loved him dearly,” he said. But “he had choices. He made the wrong one.”
Jackie found forgiveness easier. “I get it. I understand. He loved her too much,” she said. “He was going to lose his wife. His job. His military service. He was never going to get Alyssa back.”
Still, “I’m heartbroken. There’s no other words.”
They live with their memories now. The family videos Paul found therapeutic to make, the photos of Alyssa and Tiffany and Dave displayed through the house.
And the Elmos.
There are a dozen Elmos now in their middle-class suburban home, all reminders of a beautiful baby girl who couldn’t lift her head but never lost her smile.
On the day her mother and father died, a murder-suicide following a child-abuse accusation, a doctor guessed the truth: Alyssa was born with a genetic illness that would kill her before her first birthday.
June 16, 2008
Tiffany O’Shell notices that Alyssa cried when she lifted her right leg.
Tiffany takes Alyssa to the doctor and then to Children’s Hospital, where X-rays show multiple fractures. Adams County child-protection workers place Alyssa in foster care.
An Adams County judge orders “emergency medical testing” of Alyssa for genetic illnesses.
Tiffany says her husband, who feared he would be arrested for child abuse, had said he was “going to shoot people” so police would have a real reason to arrest him.
Tiffany and David O’Shell are found dead; Alyssa’s foster mother takes her to a doctor who independently ordered the genetic tests a judge had ordered 11 days earlier.
Test results confirm a diagnosis of spinal muscular atrophy.
Over the objections of Adams County social services, a judge returns Alyssa to grandparents Jackie and Paul Cuin.
The date on which emergency genetic testing, scheduled more than three months earlier, is scheduled to occur.
-By David Olinger